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Grammar Does Not Exist

This the second full article I’ve written about grammar (this was the first). Hopefully I won’t repeat myself :D.

When I tell people how I acquire (acquired) Japanese and Cantonese, the first question many immediately ask is: “but what about grammar”?!?! Yeah, what about that…

At the end of last year, over the holiday season, I was in a car with a Japanese friend, and we got onto the subject of Why Khatzumoto Owns So Hard At Japanese[1]: “Ah never done did study no grammah; jist ah few thowsan sen’ences”, said I. And she was all: “What? But you speak so grammatically! This is madness! ” And then I was like: “Woman, this is SPARTAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!”

All my conversations go like this.

So, how was I able to speak correct Japanese and write correct Cantonese without ever having formally studied their grammar? Indeed, without ever having formally studied either language?

Because grammar doesn’t exist.

I see some of you just choked on your herb tea, so let me say it again slowly: Grammar. Does. Not. Exist.

“HERESY! It does too exist! There are books about it and we learn about it in school and…and…”

There are books about a lot of things, darling. Doesn’t make them real. You see, grammar is an abstraction. Like fixed electronic orbits[2], the equator, and layers of the protocol stack. None of these things exist; they are make-believe. Or, to put it more gently, they exist because we say they do; they are thought-things, idea-objects…imaginary.

Grammar and all its little babies: conjugations, declensions, endings – it’s all made up. There is no set-in-stone connection between words like 行く (“to go”) and 行った (“went”); they are two separate words that describe two separate things. We only join them together conceptually as conjugated forms of the same verb because we thought it would make things easier.

And this is why we made up the abstraction of grammar. In fact, it’s why any abstraction gets made up – to make things easier. The world is complicated. An abstraction, when used correctly, makes everything simpler; it gives us neat boxes to put everything in.

You wouldn’t want a world without abstraction; you could never, for example, talk about a species of animal or about “chairs” as an overarching type of furniture; you could only talk about…individual animals and seating apparatus.

The problem, kids, is that abstraction can be misunderstood and thereby misused, such that it actually makes the world more complicated. Misunderstanding is the source of all abstraction heartache. Our abstractions are often so powerful and useful that we take them to be literal, physical fact[3]. From here comes misuse.

Misuse. A hammer is good for hitting nails, but when you try to eat food with it…you may end up having a longer day than you ever wished for. Let me go even further – a hammer is good for hitting nails, but if you go up to a star (as in, a celestial object) and try to hit it because “there be iron in thar and I want to get my hits in early, you know, strike it well it’s hot” well, it’s just going to be too hot and your hammer will probably melt – unless you have those magical experimental shields that let you pull a Picard (Riker? Janeway?) Maneuver right the heck through a star.

Similarly, the thing with the abstraction of grammar may be less a matter of intrinsic suckage and more a matter of situational suckage; there is a time and place to learn grammar, and that time and place are not when you don’t know the language and not outside the language in question. Only learn “grammar” in the target language. It will only truly make sense then anyway. And, you’ll have figured almost all of it out through patterns and inference anyway…Remember what Stephen son of Krashen said — learning a language is different from learning about a language.

The abstraction of grammar fails language learners because it’s not abstract enough; it’s not simple enough. Abstraction is supposed to reduce confusion and detail; grammar study tends to only increase these. Perhaps part of the problem is that the thing to be abstracted – human language – is just so…human(?) So alive and fractally complex? So mutable? Reducing it to a few simple rules was probably optimistic at best and arrogant at worst? Perhaps…I don’t know. Anyway, you’re better off just taking the parts of a language as they come. Don’t try to force an ill-fitting, arbitrarily-created, observed-after-the-fact pattern onto a situation that doesn’t merit it.

Back to the verb example: the parts of a verb are only parts of the same verb because we say they are. In my experience, you’re better off more or less treating (learning) them as separate words. After all, they have different meanings, spellings and sounds: that fits any reasonable definition of a separate word that I can think of. Yes, they are connected, but you’re better off figuring out these connections for yourself (which you will) through observation anyway. Learning them before the fact will only hurt you and the forest critters.

The next time you’re speaking the 日本語 Japanese, ask your Japanese friends whether that verb is transitive or not “これ、他動詞?自動詞?早く教えろよ、お前コノヤローお前”; they’ll make uncomfortable faces and kind of shrug and change the subject because they don’t know…and don’t need to; they just use it correctly. One day walking through Paris I want you to be like: “You there! What’s the pluperfect passive subjunctive of…?”

Just one more thing to add. Another problem with having grammar as an entry-point for language study is that it creates possibilities, most of which are possibilities for error. When given a grammatical explanation, it’s often presented as a sort of tree of possibilities with all kinds of node-like things – stems and endings and stuff and some poorly expressed rules to be instantly “programmed” into your brain which will then run computations to churn out sentences like some kind of primitive logic engine…or something like that. Not only is this too freaking slow, but invariably people misuse the tree and make illegal combinations (ungrammatical statements). Again, better to just accept how things are said in a language as-is just because; let a certain way of saying something be right just because it’s right; this leaves far less room for error: there will be no wild misapplication of a “rules” due to simple logical lapses.

Patterns – repetitions of some overarching phenomenon – do exist; grammar tries and fails to abstract these patterns. The way to master the fictional language patterns we refer to as “grammar” is by experiencing them in real life; in their natural habitat, used in sentences and phrases by real native speakers. Anything else is, to borrow the PG-13 words of John “PapaJohn” Biesnecker from Yuehan, “like trying to become an expert in bed by taking sex-ed classes”.

…I guess it could happen…

Next time, instead of getting a description of the taste of durien, why not just eat it…Mmmm…durien all over yo’ clothes.

[1] This is called showing off. Your Mom seems to like it.


[2] Not an expert on this so…someone call me on it if I’m wrong.

[3] Then again, if the physical world itself isn’t real, then…

  61 comments for “Grammar Does Not Exist

  1. January 28, 2009 at 12:34

    Very interesting read. I often get caught up in learning different grammar concepts and wonder if I will ever understand them.

    My wife gives a me a response like you mentioned above when I ask her grammar related questions and she has to give them serious thought before I get an answer. Your post really helps put that in perspective.

    Will try this approach for a while and see how it works at, but I will definitely have to fight the urge to get a grammatical explanation at some point.

  2. Ryan
    January 28, 2009 at 12:40

    And another thing–why do you recommend, endorse, and link to Tae Kim? “If you’re looking for a great resource on Japanese grammar, Tae Kim offers brilliant, lucid explanations in his Guide to Japanese.” I thought you said to only study grammar in the target language; now your rhetoric appears inconsistent.

    I think what you *actually* want to recommend is that people *occasionally* consult *descriptive* grammars for the sake of *input*, rather than *incessantly* consulting *prescriptive* grammars for the sake of *output* (which then leads to asking people about the pluperfect passive subjunctive–why would you even need to know this except to use it in output?). There’s a lot to be said for inference, the sort obtained through attentive and relentless exposure to the target language: it’s the only way to internalize very fine, subtle points of grammar, usage, and vocabulary (for example, the semantically determined order of attributive adjectives in English–“big red car” vs “red big car”); but at the same time, a broad overview of grammar like Tae Kim’s is extremely useful to beginners, because it gives you a sense of what major structures to watch for in the target language. There’s no need to infer how the Japanese potential form works AND what it means, with absolutely no outside help; I’ve always felt that that sort of thing misses the point of immersion.

  3. nest0r
    January 28, 2009 at 12:45

    I agree to an extent, grammar study should be kept subordinate to contextual usage, but it’s also invaluable to developing one’s own metalinguistic awareness. Doing both I think is logical and keeps things flexible. Your review of UBJG is a good outline of that kind of practical application–using logically progressing example sentences to set a grammatical foundation. I’m keen to see what kinds of developings we’ll have in future resources designed to be widely applicable without attempting to dryly dictate peoples’ learning regimens. Some kind of combination of iKnow and Wayne Lammers/Mangajin, perhaps. ;p

  4. January 28, 2009 at 12:49

    I agree that sometimes, especially at the beginning, it’s best to go along without thinking about “grammar”. Sometimes it all the attempts to explain grammar logically and then all the exceptions just gets in the way and discourages learners.

    However, eventually understanding grammar helps… especially with a language with grammar as standard as Japanese!

    There -is- a “formula” you can know to get from 行く to 行った。 Same goes for 食べる to 食べた。If you learn the grammar rules for conjugating those “う” verbs and “る” verbs, you can from then on see -any- verb in the Japanese language, and instantly know how to use it in any tense. This doesn’t work with English when you see “buy” and “bought” and then proceed to barf. Sure, Japanese grammar has exceptions… verb conjugations have like what… 2 or 3? 来る and する? That’s awesome.

    Of course, native speakers don’t really think in grammar. I can’t explain English grammar at all.

    Eventually though, figuring out the grammar can be very helpful. Just don’t let that stop you from memorizing sentences and working out the grammar later when you’re really really bored.

    – Harvey

  5. Paul
    January 28, 2009 at 12:52

    That was Crusher, with credit to Dr. Reyga. I guess the Japanese Star Trek wiki doesn’t have that info. 🙂

  6. January 28, 2009 at 13:02

    I would say you can use grammar as a way to polish your language, the little points where input by itself couldn’t correct. The problem is that to many people try to learn a language through grammar, what is really non-sense. You learn a language mainly through input, and use grammar just to polish it, just a little bit. See ya!

  7. January 28, 2009 at 13:23

    I knew it all along. It’s a man made invention to explain the unexplainable. Sure they made it up and it makes sense to people without personalities, but when you try to learn from it…
    It’s not like kanji where you can break it down and systematize it then expect to learn the mess. It’s a language, man. Trying to apply grammar to learning is like trying to use chemistry to make a hamburger from molecules. Even if you do succeed, it wouldn’t be a hamburger I’d want to eat.

    And seriously, iKnow sounds incredibly boring. iKnow is not the magic bullet that everybody thinks it is. Just putting sentences in an SRS is not AJATT. Massive exposure to fun and entertaining things in Japanese is AJATT, sentences come after that. If Khatzu had used UBJG, it probably would have represented a very small portion of his day.

  8. January 28, 2009 at 13:34

    Thanks for the awesome post. Every time I feel like i’m really not sure what I should do next in my studies posts like this really motivate me :). btw, I eat with hammers all the time, don’t know what you’re talk’n bout!!! 😀

  9. Sebastian V.
    January 28, 2009 at 14:16

    I know jack shit about German grammar, hardly anything about English grammar… but maybe way too much about Japanese grammar at this point. Juggling grammar rules while speaking starts to get really boring.

  10. January 28, 2009 at 15:07

    Great post! I have to agree. Grammar is interesting as a linguistic tool to analyze and categorize language, which in turn would help a speaker/learner further communicate and understand the language, but I agree that overdoing it isn’t good for initial fluency.
    I learned Mandarin in a similar all immersion/self-study way that you recommend and as far as grammar goes, I’ve picked it up as I’ve gone along.

    (A good example is 了. Which you know from Cantonese. It’s very difficult to explain the grammatical function of 了, even for native speakers, and you just need to get a feeling for it before you ‘understand’ it.)

    That isn’t to say, however that other languages are the same. I think with languages that use conjugation, memorization and study of examples helps a lot. A Portuguese-fluent friend who recalled misusing many tenses all the time but never being corrected until he went and sat down with a book and learned them himself.

    In the end, it just depends on what you do with it. I wholeheartedly agree that it’s far too often treated as the language itself rather than a system of built upon the language.

  11. Jen
    January 28, 2009 at 15:21

    Hmm, not entirely sure I agree with this one!!!

    With a language like Japanese where verbs are pretty much completely regular it makes no sense to ignore conjugation rules etc…
    Children don’t learn verbs as seperate entities, they identify patterns in the language, and then apply them to different things which leads to British kids saying stuff like I runned home or I winned! In English, it’s more difficult obviously because there are so many more irregular verbs, but in Japanese, there’s a handful of irregular verbs, so it really makes sense to learn conjugation patterns, if you ignore them you’re just going to make your progress slower? That’s a bit stupid if you ask me.

    I see what you’re saying, and I think that learning grammar is like learning lexis… you can translate stuff into English at first, and try to understand the concepts etc in English, but you should make sure that you keep an open mind, and swap to a monolingual grammar dictionary as soon as possible.
    I don’t think you should necessarily try to learn everything by cramming your head full of grammar rules etc, but there’s quite a bit of Japanese that would still mystify me if I hadn’t looked up what the hell it meant in a grammar dictionary. They help a LOT in understanding, you just, like with everything else, should try to do it in your L2 as much as possible…!!

    There are obviously cases where you shouldn’t really be bothered about what the grammar rules say things mean (like the difference between the different kinds of conditionals in Japanese – always confused the hell out of me until I stopped trying to understand and actually just listened to when they were being used), but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it altogether.

    Hope that made sense. 🙂

  12. Shhhtephen
    January 28, 2009 at 16:57

    Well this is odd just the other night I was talking to my Japanese born and bred wife about this and she was all like “you have to learn grammar” and I was like no way grammar sucks. I don’t even get English grammar meanings, hell if I know the difference between a verb, adjective and all that other whoo yah I aced all my English classes without knowing these and have been fluent in English as far as I can remember before I ever had to learn about grammar so boo for grammar just boooh whooo tudaloo.

  13. Nukemarine
    January 28, 2009 at 17:39

    Khatz, I’m disappointed. The title should have been “Grammar Does Not Exist in this Dojo!!!” (/end Kobra Kai reference).

    I’m kind of split on this. It’s kind of a waste of your adult brain to not take advantages of recognized patterns to short cut learning new things. We used patterns and English to quickly get a lot of kanji in our head. We used Internet downloads (and Amazon) to get a lot of Japanese into our lives. We used English and/or photos to quickly get some basic vocabulary into our system. I can see getting some basic vocabulary to quickly get some sentences into your system.

    So Ryan, I’m assuming here, but I think that’s why Khatz recommended UBJG and Tae Kim. They don’t slam grammar down your throat, then give you a bunch of exercises to translate English into Japanese with a equally unskilled classmate (I’m looking at you Genki). UBJG and Tae Kim give example sentences which quickly get you on your way to using real sentences from real sources. The rules of grammar you may have read or inferred from them fade (ie you can’t quote them), but it seems to feel right as you read more and more Japanese.

    Regardless, it still will come down to you listening and reading to a figurative ton of Japanese. The grammar and vocabulary learning just short cuts the early beginnings.

  14. John Cotterell
    January 28, 2009 at 19:21

    Great post.

    Descriptive and prescriptive grammar are both important. But not until you’ve learned the language and are in a position to discuss them in an intelligent and informed manner.

    I’ve completely given up learning or applying rules now. (with french) I’m just immersing myself and getting an instinctive feel for the language. Same way I learned English.


  15. John Cotterell
    January 28, 2009 at 19:21

    …mn keyboard

  16. January 28, 2009 at 21:23

    here’s a very interesting and very simple linguistic excercise. You can do it in less then a minute:

    Describe, aloud, in your native language (I suppose it’s English for most of you, but you never know), what you did this morning.

    e.g. I got up around 7. I brushed my teeth, took a shower, had a sandwitch for breakfast. The weather outside seemed nice.

    now, try the same, but make small mistakes in your speech, like a foreign speaker trying to speak English. Remember to talk loudly.

    e.g. I woked up in 7. I wash mine tooths, take showering etc.

    do it now.

    Isn’t it strange that it’s difficult to make a mistake in your own native language? That’s because you are simply used to the right way of speaking. Imagine that, you have to CONCENTRATE TO MAKE MISTAKES!

    And tell me, how much English (or your native language) grammar do you know? When you want to say something in English, but you’re not sure, do you reffer to some grammatical rule or do you try to “feel” how it should be constructed, by comparing the parts to other sentences which you know are correct?

    so, to tie all this to grammar:

    Who says that grammar isn’t being learned from all the language input?

    The problem is that when people say “grammar”, the image that comes to mind is lists of language rules and verb conjugation tables, i.e. Boring Grammar 🙂

    Grammar is, also, the “way” a language works, the rules behind what is being said and all the exceptions etc. what every native speaker of any language knows and feels to be correct. Let’s call it, say, “Natural Grammar”.

    You could say that Natural Grammar is learned by induction, rather than deduction. It’s developing a feeling for what is correct, based on being exposed to lots of correct (and fun 😉 ) stuff.

    Because it’s not a part of the language but, rather, the language itself, the more you use it, the better you’re at it. Even at the beginning stages, when you’re thinking about saying something, it’s faster than Boring Grammar.

    For instance, if I stumble for a moment when I want to say “I cannot eat” in Japanese, I don’t try to remember the rule for making the whatchacallit “can do something”, when used with ichidan (were they ichidan? can’t remember) verbs, and add the “negative suffix” or whatever. I remember L from Death note giving a very emphatic “I can’t believe it” or, should I say, “信じられない” when Yagami Light killed the fake L. Then I simply “switch” the verb stem.

    And, as time goes by, and I learn more and more correct (and fun! 😀 ) examples, it’ll become natural. Because it’s Natural Grammar. As opposed to Boring Grammar. Which is boring 😀

    • July 14, 2011 at 10:13

      This! In the name of everything that is sacred, THIS!!! 😀

      Excellent way to put it Relja, I totally agree with you. True grammar is not the same as it’s abstraction (boring grammar), true-natural grammar is almost like a physical skill, something that you feel and live, something that just becomes part of you after being exposed to a language after obscene amounts of time.

      … why didn’t I thought about it earlier? I’m jealous xD

  17. HiddenSincerity
    January 28, 2009 at 22:16

    Khatz has said simillair things previosuly previously BUT, you can use a digital camera without knowing what a pixel is, or eat a meal without knowing which stomach enzymes break down which foods. or listen to Arashi without knowing they’re an overly manufactured effeminante boy-band.

    I love reading about grammar, any and every language, but after japanese grammar for 6 years … using it as a foundation for language learning is not the way to go if you actually ever want to understand or use the language on any meaningful level. Especially grammar as explained in English (or your 1st language) about Japanese (or your chosen 2nd language).

    Interestingly, according to a book I was reading recently (The Brain That Changes Itself, if anyones interested, but no Japanese translation yet which is a bummer) the reason that many people fail at learning language is because the brain is ‘use it or loose it’ and the more you use it, the harder it becomes to loose it. So reading about you target language in English is actually reinforcing your English skills than your Target languages’ ones, and to a massive extent. Basically, if you are not using it constantly, you are loosing it. The book then supports an immersion style environment, to the exclusion (as much as possible) to the first language, as potentially the most effective, fastest, way to learn a language.
    Basically, it says the brain can and will adapt to the new language given enough exposure consistantly. And they also suggested that interesting materials may be the best way to learn to learn as we’re more likely to stimulate our whole brain (kinda like babies, whose brains are “on” attention mode constantly), and learn more faster. Sounds like AAJT…

  18. nacest
    January 29, 2009 at 00:24

    Some people here made comments that make it sound like Khatz has actually said “grammar should always be avoided”. By reading this post (and re-reading the linked previous!) it doesn’t sound like that at all. All he said is that it should not come first.

    I have to agree with him from my experience. At the very beginning of my Japaneez studies, I tried a lot of stupid things like cramming single-word flashcards, reading textbooks and even watching that old “Ian and the Japanese People” course (uuuh I can’t believe I watched through all of the first series…). So I was focusing a lot on the grammar. That was leading me nowhere, and it was getting more and more confusing, self-referential and boring.
    Then after I changed my mindset and actually started understanding something about the language, I went though Tae Kim’s Guide an it was… enlightening. I REALLY felt happy when I read an explanation about something that I had heard many times, but had not realized it made THAT much sense.
    It’s like astronomy (maybe?). People knew how to find their way using stars long before Copernicus & friends actually explained what they were and how they worked. After that, everything made more sense… but for navigation it was an improvement, not a starting point.
    (that may have been a lousy metaphor, so I wouldn’t dig into it too much…)

  19. January 29, 2009 at 02:02

    >Actually, 行く is an irregular verb, otherwise the past tense would be 行いた.

    Whoops. Okay. I see what you mean. 聞く。聞いた。導く。導いた。Whoops. I haven’t studied grammar in so long this didn’t even cross my mind…

    Maybe grammar really DOESN’T matter!

    Certainly now, after studying Japanese for 8+ years, I never think about grammar… but I have a feeling that sometime in my past it was an important part of my learning process… sometime ago… Hrm…..

  20. January 29, 2009 at 03:26

    Interesting article. I was reading a book about Spanish language instruction (in Spanish) and how people keep failing at teaching students the *real* language and there was an interesting statement. It said something like: “The most brilliant works on Spanish grammar were written by non-native that either don’t SPEAK speak or find it extremely difficult. This shows that focusing in grammar is just nonsense”. Pretty cool :-).

  21. Amelia
    January 29, 2009 at 06:57

    When are we getting an update on how 粤语 is coming? Us Chinese-learners want to know! 连我们学习国语的人都想一点鼓励吧!

  22. January 29, 2009 at 11:01

    My Japanese Teacher is always asking us “why” we are using a particle or another, and I find that absurd. There is no “why”… He wants to make sure we understand, but, really, is there something to “understand”?

  23. QuackingShoe
    January 29, 2009 at 12:44

    So answer appropriately. “Because it feels right!” 😉

  24. January 29, 2009 at 15:24

    I’m a cognitive psychologist by training and…you are totally right. A lot of the language learning studies (first and second+ languages) seem to suggest that immersion, not structured coursework, is the key to achieving real fluency. This is why, despite all the brouhaha about so-called “critical periods” for language learning, introducing foreign language into the curriculum at kindergarten isn’t going to do anything. If the only time you ever use the language is in class, you’ll never learn it.

    I speak and write grammatical English but it wasn’t until mid-college or so, when I started reading web sites and books by grammar geeks, that I really had any clue of what the rules of grammar were. Now I can rattle a bunch of them off and tell you the difference between a mass noun and a count noun and how it affects article usage, but…I didn’t need to know that to be able to use grammar correctly.

    I’m trying to do a serious program of self-study for Mandarin Chinese (which I grew up speaking but am functionally illiterate in) and Japanese (married a Japanese guy, would LOVE to be fluent enough to converse with my in-laws). Anyways, you’ve given me something to think about (and aspire to) as I begin my own journey. 🙂

  25. Juz
    January 30, 2009 at 23:37

    Sure 行く to 行った is the same as 食べる to 食べた。 But, do you think that when Japanese was first getting created, people said, ” Before we should talk, we should make grammer rules that will make talking a lot easier.”? Khatz is saying that sure grammar is there but just as much as other things like the equator etc. That’s why you should learn grammar after the fact because it’ll make the most sense then. The only reason we have grammar, because we made it up to make life easy, just like time. You probably didn’t learn grammar first for your native language, it just doesn’t make sense because you wouldn’t understand it. That’s why you should learn grammatically correct sentences; so they demonstrate exactly how words should be placed, so you’re not making up your own language that bares some resemblance to Japanese. Reading grammar books will just make things complicated and confusing at the beginning.

  26. Mike
    January 31, 2009 at 00:44

    I completely agree with Khatz on this one. If I try to think about conjugations or anything, that’s when I screw up. Nothing made me more happy than when I started naturally using the passive tense without thinking about it (think I said 盗まれた, talking about my old motorcycle) because that was one of those things that I always stopped conversation with before to think about.

  27. Kaba
    January 31, 2009 at 04:23

    Dang… that Ryan person

  28. Kia
    January 31, 2009 at 05:14

    This is utter nonsense. If you don’t agree with him then don’t do it. There is no need for people to come on here and be disrespectful when he has obviously proven that his method work. He doesn’t use rhetoric, he isn’t begging you to come on here and read his articles. Is he emailing you every day talking about don’t learn grammar? Funny thing is that people who insist that grammar is a basic foundation, and need to learn in order to understand the language, are the same types that are assholes that feel that a language can only be learned from some structured nonsense. If that works for you, then this isn’t the site for you. Go buy a f-ing textbook and don’t waste any more of our time on here.

  29. chris41188
    January 31, 2009 at 09:06

    I always give people in my japanese class this challenge

    “construct a sentence in english only using grammer rules”

    they cant do it, they dont know them, maybe theve deduced the basic ones or know complex ones they were forced to study, buyt largely the dont know how the construct sentences, the work on feeling/ semantic levels

    then i ask

    “construct a sentence in japanese only using grammer rules”

    and they can, eaisly but it takes them too loong and the sentences suck in their mechanical nature

    try it on the next guy who disagrees with you

    ; )

  30. mjaynec
    January 31, 2009 at 21:50

    Ryan has a valid point. I agree with what Khatz is saying, but I think there should be a bit of a disclaimer to satisfy any linguists in the crowd. Khatz (and correct me if I’m wrong) is saying that grammar is ridiculous and useless for learning a language. It is pointless to stare at rules for a language you don’t know just so you can try to memorize all the exceptions, and even then you won’t know what the ‘real’ language is like. Think about the grammar rules of English that we all break every day. How many of you end sentences with prepositions? Yeah, everybody does. That’s because rules like ‘don’t end sentences with a preposition’ are prescriptive grammar rules. They try to tell people how to talk, and the can be pretty unrealistic.

    There is another type of grammar, the kind that linguists deal with, called descriptive grammar. Descriptive grammar doesn’t give a damn about telling you how to talk. Instead it merely tries to describe how native speakers of the language talk. Not to aid language learning, but in an effort to study how languages work and ultimately what, if anything, different languages have in common.

    So yeah, there is no grammar that will teach you a language. Grammar is really only useful after you learn the language if you want to study it, but it is by no means the way to learn the language. By the way I’m a linguistics major, and grammar certainly exists. I don’t think this is necessarily the place for that discussion though. Also before you try to debate this, I think you should know that grammar is a more complex idea than what the general public takes it for. Again, I am mostly referring to descriptive grammar, not prescriptive.

    • salem
      March 5, 2011 at 19:47

      To be quite frank, I have major issues with even the formalized, taxonomic grammar studied in ivory towers. It operates on an information poor, myopic view of language — this idea that the patterns that shape sentences can be formalized into cross-lingual structures. The reason linguists rarely try to taxonomize colloquial language (beyond describing new phenomena after the fact) is probably because it’s impossible: language is not like a set of beetle species; it’s too unique, too simple and at the same time too vastly incomprehensible to the human mind to reduce to baser elements. I’m with Walker Percy when he said he was amused at the scientific community’s attempt to find if animals can talk, if aliens exist that can talk, etc., all the while forgetting the sheer bizarreness of man’s own lingual capacity.

      Much of what passes for descriptive grammar in the .pdfs of academia isn’t even true. Arabic is not a “VSO” (or any particular word order for that matter) language: to squish and jam its stiff gelatin mass into the square hole that is the “VSO” paradigm, you have to basically find sentences that fit your preconception of the language. (The Wikipedia article on “VSO” even tacitly admits that few languages express this pattern with any predictable regularity). The “definite article” doesn’t work the same in all languages. In Arabic, “al-” is not really at all equivalent to “the”; it has its own meaning that’s impossible to translate into or describe in English without writing about 5,000 words on the subject (and even then you wouldn’t get the spirit of the phoneme).

      This is not to toss our hands up and say that language is unknowable, that we should never seek to describe language in a scientific way. But a drastic change in scope is desperately required: we cannot continue studying language as though it were a kind of Sumerian ceramic style, because studying language is really to study ourselves. And just try to compress the full breadth of humanity into a few rules and descriptions.

      • Endl
        October 25, 2011 at 03:06

        I’m another linguistics major. The way you describe linguistics, it seems like you’ve never really looked at how linguists actually conduct research nowadays. Nowadays, Chomsky is out and statistical analysis is in, because we understand that language is not a hard and fast set of rules but a distribution of patterns. When we assign categories we understand these to be generalizations and descriptors, not a set in stone thing. 

        You called “al-” a *phoneme* for crissakes, when it’s a definite article. It functions largely similarly to “the” and other definite articles, so it’s safe to call it that. Wikipedia even talks about its use:

        ذكري: when the word being referred to has already been mentioned. An example is found in the word messenger in “We had sent to Pharaoh a messenger. But Pharaoh disobeyed the messenger…” (Qur’an 73:15-6).
        ذهني: when the word being referred to is understood by the listener. An example is found in the word battle in “The battle is getting worse; I think we should retreat.”

        To call it it’s own magical thing we can’t know doesn’t help us understand how it works in then language at all. Yes, there are other grammatical rules that affect its use, but what it basically does is understood and should not be ignored in favor of mysticalizing it as the unknown. If our linguistic capacity can handle it, certainly our intellectual one can.

        • Oosaka Ayumu
          January 16, 2013 at 23:31

          The problem is that you have a major in linguistic and you that. A lot of people don’t know it and keep to use the “grammar book” or the “exercise book” as the only source of knowledge. Another problem is the why you are studying the language:
          if you only love the country culture, you can think grammar is useless.
          if you love the country language more and you want to study it, you need grammar. That’s all folks. ^^ No, I mean.

  31. Jahmai
    February 10, 2009 at 01:23

    First off, I’d like to say thanks Khatzu for the great site. The video you’ve created (well at least from what I can interpret, which is not much) is a nice demonstration of knowing what you’re talking about. But still, the points on grammar explained in your article is still very hard to understand.
    I can agree with you on one thing, obviously, you shouldn’t memorize how verbs are conjugated 行く means go 行った means went etc, but what about particles, and sentence connectors, or maybe even past tense nouns/adjectives?
    The way that I’m understanding “ignore the grammar displayed” are examples like these:
    I realize, yes, you can obviously look up the names Alice and Jim, and the words friend and fish, but what the hell is だった? What if you had 100 sentences in your SRS with だった? I don’t see how you can inherit without any research through writing those sentences. But the way I learned it was through a grammar book, だった= Was, so now after doing it 1000 times, I don’t even think about that grammatical point anymore.
    Again, another example ください vs ちょうだい
    How do we understand that ください is more polite and has more a more masculine tone than ちょうだい unless 1) we’re taught what it is using some type of source, or 2) we’ve watched situations a billion times where ください and ちょうだい are being used? Yeah, you can wait to be corrected, or the people that you encounter will give you a smile and keep it “pushin'”.
    Furthermore, on the point of speaking like a native, just because you’re immersed in a language doesn’t mean it’s grammatically correct even if you “feel” it’s right. Living in a less fortunate area brings more slang to the table. for example:
    “The people was coming out of the building quick”. <—- wrong. Say goodbye to your job at a newspaper company.
    Not saying that your theory is wrong or anything, but I think it needs a little more clarification. In addition, I find myself trying to jump over some of your examples, to find the meat of the article, So I’m sorry if you explained it somewhere in there and I missed it :(. I’m tired, motivated, but I itch for an understanding without huge examples… if that makes sense.
    Again, thanks for the good site.

  32. Caeliean
    February 10, 2009 at 19:37

    I’m an elementary school teacher and I teach literacy and language arts. But I don’t teach grammar. I don’t need to. A noun isn’t “a noun”. It’s a person, place or thing. A verb is “an action word”. An adjective is “a word that describes something else”. We don’t even bother with adverbs or articles etc.

    I always have kids say things out loud or look at other books to check their work. Everything they need is in their environment, not in abstract rules. They see it other places, they copy the structures, they get more and more literate. The kids who focus hour after hour, day after day, get very good, very quickly. Of course, they spend time doing all kinds of other things as well. They’re kids after all and developing in every area. But they never really learn grammar per se, I NEVER teach it. It doesn’t work.

    And while there are heaps of studies showing how tweaks in teacher to student questioning can help with development, it remains very clear that a students’ fluency and language level correlate, with brutal in your face clarity, to the hours of focused reading the child puts in. Just plain old hard work and support at home and at school.

    If my brain based instruction theory is correct here, the reason learning grammar’s abstract rules apriori doesn’t work is there are no experiences to organize in your head. That’s certainly true for children and given how slippery a new language always is in my head, I bet that’s exactly what’s happening in our adult heads. There’s nothing to hang that abstract knowledge on in your head. And your brain consequently says “That’s useless, I’m not going to bother with that. This is boring, lets do something else… where is that PS3…”.

    I think it’s not just that it’s not profitable to learn grammar first, I think we CAN’T learn grammar before we have some language to organize. It’s just memorizing random digits without stuff for it to organize. You just can’t understand it in any meaningful way when it’s all 生 like that.

    So I think we can boil things down here with a little help from good old Steven Covey. Begin with the end in mind. If we are interested in learning to speak and read reasonably fluently, studying grammar doesn’t matter and isn’t worth your time unless you are trying to puzzle out what a sentence means, instance by instance. AFTER. When you have your hours of material to organize. So, make like the kiddies and put in those hours! For every 10 pages you read, every hour of listening, I’ll give you a gold sticker. There’ll be a prize given to the top three sticker holders in the class at the end of the week.

  33. Frank
    February 12, 2009 at 16:26

    You know it’s funny, reading what you have to say just makes so much sense – and it’s like when someone asks me about how i go about learning japanese, they all assume so much. hmm he must be taking classes in college…or he must listen to those audio tapes… Then when you try to explain it, no one will take you seriously because no one has ever heard of anything like this before.. Your advice makes so much sense and yet no one could take it seriously because they’re so damn closed minded… anyways man thanks for the advice/info/motivation. じゃ

  34. Hana
    July 5, 2009 at 15:50

    Reading this, I am suddenly starting to remember how I learned my native language – English!! It is, I think, pretty similar to how you’ve just suggested we learn our second language.
    I was homeschooled, and I basically taught myself everything. My mum didn’t even do a lot of the teaching; it was mostly me teaching myself. I, for the most part, only learned things I felt were important to learn and I learned those things at the pace that was comfortable for me. This worked!!
    So – I learned to read and write English on my own, and at my own pace.

    Because I learned outside of school and I taught myself mostly everything, I ended up learning to read and write a lot later than other kids my age. They were reading and studying boring grammar in school, but I was looking around at street signs going “wtf do all those symbols mean?” Yet, I could speak quite well and understand all kinds of technical, “advanced adult” talk.
    The only grammar I remember studying, at first, was a phonetics book… and even that I picked up out of curiosity and a desire to learn to read, finally. I remember looking at it maybe only up to five times. I read things like ‘A makes this sound and Th makes that sound….’ and that was it.
    Then, I read a few sentences in a children’s book. And one night, I picked up a novel (by Laura Ingalls Wilder, I believe) and I read the whole freakin thing. I was like “woah, holy frick mum, I just read me a book!!” lol
    After that I went on to read things like ‘The French Lieutenant’s Wife” and Nelson Mandela’s biography. And I *enjoyed* them, lol. And I was only 11 yrs old. XD

    When I eventually did go to school (in highschool and college) my English teachers were surprised at my levels of English and writing. They gave me really high marks and said they admired my writing style. I’m not full of myself, really… just look at the way I write sometimes!! I can be damn lazy and write all kinds of weird run-on sentences and things. But what I’m saying is, I was able to read and write pretty well, and I never learned much about grammar at all.
    To be honest, my teachers would have been quite surprised to know that I didn’t (and actually still don’t really) know what an adverb is. Seriously. I never seriously studied all of those technical things and terms… I just did what worked, and…. it WORKED!!

    So… just saying… I think it’s really true, all this about grammar. It’s far more important to just know HOW to produce things like spoken sentences and written sentences that make sense without necessarily knowing WHY it is that way. Atleast at first. There’s nothing wrong with learning the technicalities after the fact or later on into your studies, of course. But from the beginning – just learn how to do things by following examples and ingesting it all from your environment – and eventually the understanding and then the output will come!! And after that you can learn perhaps what the names are for all of those systems of talk and writing you’re using… or not.
    Blaaaah……..I can’t believe I just wrote all of that!!!!

    Basically, I’m now just reminded of how I learned English reading and writing… and I am going to learn Japanese the same way, pretty much. Thanks for the article, awesome person of awesome!!! ^_^

  35. キャシー (that's Cassie, stooge, not Cathy. Get over it xO)
    August 1, 2009 at 03:44

    Heh, this makes me think of when I was working in the reading/writing lab at the local community college. I was helping an ESL student with her work, and was trying to lead her to understand why her sentence didn’t quite work (this is another great way to work on getting the underlying feel of other languages, because working with their mistakes in English leads you to a feel of how they think and how that must come from something in their own language’s mindset), and why this other one did. Her face lit up, and she said, “Oh! It’s a gerund, right?” and I was like, “…uh… maybe? What’s a gerund?” (Cue but-you’re-really-smart-you-should-know-this look, followed by my but-we-natives-never-learn-these-things laugh) I now know that it’s the -ing form of a verb that functions as a noun, rather than that which functions as a progressive verb. But who ever needed to know that?

  36. wasabwack
    August 18, 2010 at 09:29

    Thank you for helping me reach enlightenment.

  37. Jonathan
    August 21, 2010 at 16:12

    For me, the best part about this post is the fact that 「行く」 is actually irregular; if it obeyed the “rules” of Japanese grammar, its past tense form would be 「行いた」. So in a way, this random, simple example actually proves its own case rather elegantly. 🙂

  38. タック
    October 5, 2010 at 22:57

    If grammar rules really existed translator programs would be perfect. ね

  39. Emp
    November 1, 2010 at 12:14

    Abstractions (grammar is one) have the most predictive power (provided they are good abstractions) in situations that are regular, sensible, reasonable, etc. Like science or math. Before Copernicus people were describing star movement in these insanely complicated ways that included terms like “retrograde” and were a pain to deal with. But then someone was able to see to the simple truth behind all that carp, that the model was wrong and when you shift to the more accurate one things get sweet and simple.

    Since then (or before then, since that’s just a well-known example), pretty much any time that the explanations ended up getting really cumbersome when trying to account for WHAT REALLY HAPPENS, inevitably would come a new epiphany that makes things simpler again if we only look at them in a different way. So yay. Happiness for science and especially the pure and theoretical world that is math.

    Abstractions work great for anything that can be boiled down to something simple. Unfortunately languages cannot, thanks to the randomness of humanity. Even most of our deliberately created languages (C++ eh?) have inconsistencies in them, from some new change being applied only partially, because there was a critical point for laziness, or it just seemed weird in some situations. Humans do like order well enough, so they don’t go deliberately making things random and chaotic when determining WHAT REALLY HAPPENS in languages, but are bound by such semi-relevant factors as “this is awkward to pronounce” and “I’m too lazy to say the whole word so I’ll just use part,” which are all in some way related to convenience. (Plus where languages are widespread we have these changes going on in parallel and get dialects).

    Humans like convenience better than order. Therefore language (something we use a lot and therefore want to be as lazy as possible with) grows more for the sake of convenience than for the simplistic beauty of pure order. All we “native” speakers know what we mean well enough, so it works for us. Sure, it might be easier to learn for other people if it acted in a way that made sense all the time, but that would take more work on our part, and en masse. Not gonna happen. (Especially in languages that are the bastard children of other languages, like English. Anyone who learned English first should know better. Why then are some of the most strict “grammarists” english-speaking? I blame British Imperial mentality.)

    So any attempt to describe the human creation of language as if it were as sensible as objects obeying physics is pretty silly. On a high level we can get it to work, and it can indeed be very useful. It will point us in the general right direction and set up a basic intuition for how things work. But if we try to force it to accomodate the nitty gritty of all individual cases we set ourselves up for frustration and way more work than any insight from it is worth. Because unlike science, no real language has beautiful, underlying universal truths. Just vague generalities.

    So I find grammar useful as long as I stay at the vague level of “it works sorta like that, eh?”

    To summarize the summary of the summary: Laziness is more powerful than logic.

  40. Richard
    November 17, 2010 at 15:17


  41. Areckx
    May 27, 2011 at 04:50

    I like the part about studying grammar IN THE TARGET LANGUAGE.

    I read hundreds of books in English before I finally got to high school English grammar drills. It was boring, and I liked it because I had all of the information already stored in the back of my head. The lessons further solidified my English into the back of my brain so I could continue reading and using English without even thinking about it.

    This is where I plan to be with my Japanese, after I’ve read enough, after I’ve got my feet wet with a few hundred books. With a few hundred thousand sentences. With a few million kanji pairings…

  42. Ian Long
    September 12, 2011 at 12:16

    This is compleatly correct.  In fact, what we think of as Engish grammar, is just one set of grammar rules.  It is actually called Traditional grammar, and was designed by linguists to describe language.  It was never intended to be used for language instruction, and is basically not suited to that use at all.  There are various other grammars floating about, but sadly everyone gets forced to use Traditional English grammar.

  43. Avery
    December 5, 2011 at 12:46

    Grammar believers, please diagram the English sentence “long time no see”.

    • Kakipii
      April 22, 2012 at 05:30

      It’s a fixed expression. I always thought it was imitating ungrammatical Chinese speakers of English, but just looked it up on Wikipedia and see it could be from Native American Pidgin.
      Anyway, although it’s a great example of a phrase that is ungrammatical, that is its point – it was originally used by non-native speakers. Native speakers wouldn’t use LENGTH OF TIME + NO + VERB (BASE FORM) in other constructions (“Two days no study” or “Long period no work”).
      I agree with the general point of this thread, though. If you learn Japanese using a grammatical syllabus (either from a class textbook or in your own self-study) you’re going to end up speaking horrible disjointed Japanese, as I do. A small percentage of people will learn no matter what, but most need a variety of input and practice opportunities.

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